Autocratic leaders prefer presidential form of government, and Imran Khan is no exception.
Pakistan has witnessed a consistent deterioration of democracy and fundamental rights during the nearly four years of Khan’s rule. He has touted presidential system on many occasions while in power. He logic is that a presidential system bars dishonest politicians from holding power. But in reality such a form of government is potential autocrats’ personal favourite.
Presidential system is prone to turn the state into a full-blown autocracy due to veto players — the actors whose consent is required to change the status quo. These are constitutional rules, procedural norms and policies. Usually, these are formal institutions like the parliament and judiciary but could also be other informal actors, like the military, bureaucracy or interest groups. An executive needs the consent of these players to implement radical steps. In that sense, the presence of multiple veto players compels the executive to engage in debates with others on merits of their objectives. Executive wants to implement the agenda with minimum opposition.
We know from history – especially from Nazi Germany – that unopposed executives could wreak havoc. The parliamentary and judicial reviews act as emergency brakes to the otherwise unruly juggernaut of the executive. In short, the more veto players in the system, the optimum decisions are by virtue of rigorous deliberation and substantive consensus.
Imran Khan laments precisely this point: i.e., he wanted to implement radical “reforms”, but “the parliament did not allow him to do so”. His view not only represents his contempt for procedural politics but also hides something more insidious – his desire for an absolutist system where there are no speedbumps to moderate his whimsical politics. This is precisely the reason why autocrats prefer presidential systems.
What Pakistan needs now is neither a populist leader like Imran Khan, who has no regard for procedural and deliberative politics, nor a system that would get rid of any speedbumps in the path of whimsical political decisions.
Data suggests that there are roughly three times more dictatorships running under presidential systems than those under parliamentary systems. The following graph makes it clear that presidential systems are more amenable to autocratic rule than parliamentary systems.
So, what’s unique about the presidential system? There are fewer checks and balances to start with, i.e., fewer players who would veto or slow down whimsical decisions. Autocrats generally want electoral legitimacy but no parliamentary oversight. They want a system where the executive is independent of the legislature, where the parliament seldom scrutinises the executive decisions, and where they do not have to appear to answer the bitter questions of the opposition. There are examples where such autocrats eventually design a system with minimum to no checks and balances of the legislature on executive decisions, where elections serve as mere legitimising mechanisms, and where the judiciary can be coerced into stamping their decisions. This is precisely what has happened in Turkey, which has resulted in total chaos.
Like Imran Khan, Recep Tayyip Erdogan wanted swift decision-making powers, which is simply a euphemism for his desire to bypass the deliberative democratic process. It is important to point out that, unlike Imran Khan, Erdogan did deliver on both economic growth and democratisation before he became paranoid — when one of his key allies rebled against him. Amidst fear and chaos created by a failed coup attempt, Erdogan rushed a Presidentialism Alla Turca and installed himself as the president in a system with minimum role of the parliament in decision-making. He had already coopted the judiciary by purging oppositional elements. The new system allowed him to issue whimsical decrees arresting his foes – traits – and run the country like Middle Ages Sultanate. This transition to presidential system effectively led to the demise of a burgeoning economy and blossoming democracy – basically undoing any good he had done in the past.
It is abundantly clear that Imran Khan wants to be the next Erdogan. By extension, his desire for presidential system is intertwined with his admiration of Erdogan’s whimsical politics. He has repeatedly praised the Turkish epic TV series, Resurrection: Ertugrul.
Erdogan promoted his ‘us’ versus ‘traitors’ narrative, where protagonists go on beheading traitors. His trajectory was telltale signs of what went on in his head, i.e., creating an autocratic state under a doctored presidential system with make-believe electoral legitimacy.
What Pakistan needs now is neither a populist leader like Imran Khan, who has no regard for procedural and deliberative politics, nor a system that would get rid of any speedbumps in the path of whimsical political decisions. Pakistan instead needs a robust parliamentary system with an independent judiciary and strong civil society to invigorate our still fledgling and fragile democracy. We do not need a government independent of the parliament, but a government held accountable by the parliament.